The vinyl resurgence shows no sign of slowing, so here's a great budget turntable for your newly thrifted LPs.

Moore's Law and Affordable Computing

The Intel 4004. Two and a half thousand transistors of fun.

You've probably heard of Moore's Law. It's the notion that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuits will double every two years. When Intel co-founder Gordon Moore threw out the idea in 1965, he had no inkling that his observation would hold true for the next 50 years. In 1971, the Intel 4004 microprocessor contained about 2,300 transistors. In 1990, the Intel 80486 processor offered a staggering 1,000,000 transistors, and a modern 6-core Intel i7 processor crams several billion transistors onto a single die. 

A late model Commodore PET.

Analysts have highlighted the amazing rise in desktop computing power for decades, but many have missed the point -- it's not neccessarily about creating faster, more powerful machines. When I first started playing with computers in the early 1980s, they were cumbersome and expensive. My father gravely pointed out that we couldn't afford a $1000 home computer (the equivalent of $2,600 in 2014 dollars), but he was willing to rent me an old Commodore PET from the local microcomputer emporium for a month. In 1981, computer ownership was out of the question for all but the most die-hard fanatics. 

A surprisingly decent $150 computer.

Fast-forward 34 years and it's possible to purchase a name brand Windows 8 notebook computer for only $150. While it won't set any performance records, it's an ideal lightweight travel companion (which is why I recently bought one) or a decent starter machine for someone on a Mac & Cheese budget. In 1981 dollars, that computer would have cost a mere $58 -- about the same price as a couple of Atari 2600 video game cartridges. 

While bleeding-edge computing power still costs thousands, the industry has progressed to the point where a $150 notebook (or even a $59 smartphone) can fulfill the computing needs of many. And things are only going to get cheaper; the $100 laptop that was once the holy grail in third world educational circles will soon be something that anyone can pick up from a local big box retailer.

The recent availability of decent "good enough" computers is important for the millions of people here in the developed world who still don't own a computer or have access to the Internet. It's a good thing for parents who want their kids to have phones but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a gleaming new iPhone. It's a good thing for seniors who rely on the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends.

Information is power, and access to information has never been easier or cheaper.

Boutique Swiss Made Calculators

DM-16 calculator

I'm a huge fan of classic H-P calculators, especially the HP-16C -- their first and only programmer's calculator. It has become a much sought-after collector's item, which ensures that good examples sell for insane amounts on eBay. That's not so great for those of us who actually want a real, honest-to-goodness programmer's calculator on our desks. 

Every calculator should have a leather coat...

Enter DM Swiss Made Calculators. These clever little Swiss devices are miniature emulations of vintage Hewlett-Packard calculators, including the HP-11C (Advanced Scientific Programmable), HP-12C (Business Calculator), HP-15C (Scientific with Matrix & Complex Math) and HP-16C ("Computer Scientist" model). Each model costs 89 Swiss Francs (about $95) and is available in untreated, brown and blue titanium. They run on a single CR2032 battery which should last for years in normal use, and it's possible to update the firmware using a serial connection. 

Apart from that... they're calculators. They're really small. They fit in cool leather pouches, too. 

Visit DM Swiss Made Calculators for more info

Earliest Known Official Batmobile For Sale

I'm considering this as my daily driver.

Robin Lee writes, "A heavily-customised Oldsmobile said to be the first officially-licenced Batmobile will go to auction later in December. Created in 1963, three years before the infamously camp Batman TV show hit the airwaves, DC Comics allowed a US chap named Forrest Robinson to build a Batmobile."

I love the swooping look of this prehistoric Batmobile and I'm somewhat sad it didn't have the opportunity to star in its own series. Preferably in black & white. With gangsters. The minimum bid price is $112,500, but the auction house is expecting the final price to be significantly higher. 

Holy fish fins, Batman!

From Heritage Auctions: "What is believed to be the world's first car that became an officially licensed Batmobile was conceived and customized starting in 1960 by 23-year-old Forrest Robinson. After finishing the design, Robinson and a young friend, Len Perham, begun building the car in the Robinson family barn. Robinson completed the car in 1963-two years before the George Barris customization of the TV Batmobile was started. The '63 Batmobile is the earliest known car in existence that was sanctioned by a DC Comics licensee.

Although many people associate the Batmobile with the cars seen in recent Batman movies or the late-60s Batman TV show, Robinson's earlier car is instantly recognizable as 'more authentic' by comic book lovers. It has features seen in DC's Batman Comics from the 1940s and '50s, including the prominent front-end bat-nose and rear-end single fin.

The '63 Batmobile was custom-built from the ground up. Starting with a 1956 Oldsmobile 88 frame and the famous 324 Rocket engine -- a predecessor of 1960s muscle cars -- Robinson replaced the Oldsmobile body with his custom-designed body, measuring 17 feet by 83 inches, sporting the Batmobile's iconic dorsal fin, bat-nose front end and pocket sliding doors." 

Earliest Known Official Batmobile Goes On Sale []

The Last Revox Repairman in Brazil

The Revox Man from Baucia on Vimeo.

Alfredo Luiz Baucia writes, "I think you would like to know about the last Revox specialist still working in Brazil, Getulio Cinquetti."

Indeed, we would. Alfredo took the time to capture a typical working day for Mr Cinquetti on video. The result is a nod to the past and a reminder that in a few short years none of the original Revox technicians from the 1960s and 1970s will be around. Sadly, few want to learn their craft and there's a real risk that decades of technical knowledge will vanish moments after the last puff of solder smoke from the old workbenches. 

Classic Retro Thing: Vintage Pink

Pink Panther

[ed. note: This post originally ran in June of 2010. I've enjoyed each and every one of these cartoons at least thrice since then.]

Newsflash to cartoon creators: Kids hate kids' cartoons.

I'm the father of a young child, which means I've suffered through dozens of episodes of Dora the Explorer, whose target demographic seems to be acid tripping bilingual preschoolers. I don't think children genuinely like this kind of show, they just accept it because they don't know any better and parents think it's safe.

The simple truth is that kids crave real cartoons. Grownup cartoons. Wickedly funny and sometimes horrifically violent cartoons. It's one reason that Disney Pixar movies have been such smash hits; kids realize that there's something supremely adult in some of the humor. They may not understand the subtext, but they understand it's cool. Grownup cool.

Continue reading "Classic Retro Thing: Vintage Pink" »

The Internet Arcade: Over 900 Vintage Arcade Games In Your Browser


The Internet Archive has long been one of the coolest sites on the web, thanks to its incredible collection of long-forgotten web pages and public domain films. They added home console games to the mix with the Console Living Room late last year, and now they've unveiled The Internet Arcade - a browser-friendly collection of classic arcade games that will blow your mind. 

The list of games includes well-known titles like Frogger, Amidar, Joust, Lode Runner, Rally-X and Zaxxon along with hundreds of lesser known games -- many of which had slipped my mind. Because the emulations use the original game ROMs, you'll have to sit through a few seconds of power-up self tests and deal with odd control arrangements on a few titles. Thankfully, the Internet Archivists have created a page of games that should run at full speed on most hardware. 

So how is it done? They say, "The Internet Arcade is a web-based library of arcade (coin-operated) video games from the 1970s through to the 1990s, emulated in JSMAME, part of the JSMESS software package. Containing hundreds of games ranging through many different genres and styles, the Arcade provides research, comparison, and entertainment in the realm of the Video Game Arcade.

  The game collection ranges from early 'bronze-age' videogames, with black and white screens and simple sounds, through to large-scale games containing digitized voices, images and music. Most games are playable in some form, although some are useful more for verification of behavior or programming due to the intensity and requirements of their systems."

Visit The Internet Arcade at the Internet Archive to see if you've still got the chops to grab a high score. No quarters required. 

Reviving An Old Film Brand

Classic Ferrania stock from the late 1950s

We're at a crossroad in digital imaging - that magical time in a technology's adoption curve where nearly everyone uses and enthuses about it. In a few years - perhaps five or ten - we'll see a small but determined group of people aggressively readopt traditional still and motion picture film as if it were a new technology. And that's a good thing, because it gives us more variety. 

The problem is that film manufacturers are in trouble and only a handful will survive the next five or 10 years. That's where this Kickstarter project comes in. Ferrania started making film in Northern Italy in 1923 -- think of a classic Italian film and chances are that it was shot on their film stock. The company was acquired by 3M in 1965 and became independent again in 1999. The rise of digital pushed them to close in 2010. 

An image from the company's heyday.

Fast-forward to 2012 and a new company -- FILM Ferrania -- was born, based out of the old Ferrania Research & Development building. They've started a Kickstarter project to fund a small bach of ScotchChrome, which is a 100 ASA daylight color reversal film that can be used for slides or movie projection. It's a relatively new formulation created by 3M Imation in the late 1990s and produced by Ferrania until 2003. 

The Kickstarter project is already fully funded with several weeks still to go, and the FILM Ferrania gang are excited about using some of the proceeds to rescue important production machinery from old Ferrania buildings that are slated for demolition. These include a machine that makes triacetate base (the smooth, clear plastic that the photo-sensitive chemicals are coated onto), a chemical synthesis lab to manufacture the photo-sensitive chemicals, and a third machine that applies a smooth coating of chemical onto the film base. In other words, everything needed to make film in reasonably large quantities. 

Vintage ScotchChrome packaging.

So what makes this Kickstarter project exciting? It's the fact that FILM Ferrania has chosen to make color reversal film, which is critically important to filmmakers who want to shoot and project their movies without being forced to digitize negative film. Former film giant Kodak is focusing on negative film, simply because it's the stuff that the professional motion picture industry requires. Several other manufacturers have chosen to concentrate on high-quality B&W stock, so Ferrania will occupy an important niche in the market.

100 More Years of Analog: FILM Ferrania [thanks for the tip, Robert Schmitt!]

A Very Cool $59 Retrocomputer

Like the 1980s without the beige.

Jeff Ledger writes, "We've been busy over the summer combining two Microcontroller chips to create a unique microcomputer that has retro 'feel,' and plenty of programming power. We called it the Micromite Companion.

It's a kit computer that is programed in BASIC, capable of sprites, tiles, and SIDlike audio with 54K of programming space. The MMC also capable of communicating with serial, I2C, SPI, 1-wire, and other modern devices and sensors."

I'm a sucker for recreations of classic computers, but this machine is all new. It combines the old-school familiarity of BASIC with the ability to interface with modern LCD modules, servos and digital sensors. The result is a machine that can be used to create clever standalone devices without having to learn a new programming environment. 

Best of all, this board has a decidedly modern price -- only $59 + reasonable shipping costs for the kit. I think I might have to pick one up myself. 

Find out more about the Micromite Companion here. 

Adults Try Power Wheels On For Size

photo from Power Racing Series website

In the mid 80s, toy company Kransco debuted Power Wheels, a series of ride-on replica cars and trucks for kids. The expensive battery-powered motorized vehicles were a hit with kids almost immediately, with sales reaching a million/year by 1990. I can think of some real car companies that would love those sorts of sales.

Eventually Mattel bought the line, and soon after we had Barbie and Hot Wheels tie-ins that have kept the line going for so long. Newer models have refinements such as FM radios, doors, power lock brakes... can an iPod dock be far behind?

Power wheels drillSince Power Wheels have been around for a frankly astonishing thirty years, there are plenty of adults now who grew up with the toys themselves. A healthy hacking community has grown up around the all-plastic vehicles. Simple fixes like upgrading the rechargable battery, swapping out the original motor for a stronger one from a cordness drill, to complete retrofits. Then there's the next logical step... grown-ass men racing these little pink plastic cars.

The video clip here documents an annual event - Extreme Barbie Jeep Racing. This is among the easiest "hacks" - simply pull out the drive train, and freewheel down a muddy hill. This clip is a couple of years old, but is no less hilarious. The sheer number of times drivers lose a blow-molded plastic wheel (and it's not that big of a deal) gets a bellow out of me every time.

Then there are more serious hackers who replace every part of the vehicle, essentially using the outer shell. The guys at Make Labs esentially built a little metal framed car that you simply drop the plastic shell over. Fun, I suppose... but I think it flies in the face of the insanity of an adult driving the little plastic car. Plus theirs is built a little too well to throw a wheel - and what fun is that?


read Make Labs step-by-step hack
user community devoted to hacking Power Wheels


Winnebago Returns To The Seventies

2015 Winnebago Brave

The Winnebago RVs of the late 1960s were boxy, lumbering beasts. Their metal facades were usually festooned with olive green, orange or yellow striping. They were the road-borne equivalent of vintage Kenmore kitchen appliances -- practical but definitely not likely to turn the heads of Porsche aficionados.

The 2015 Winnebago Brave looks almost as if a vintage motorhome from the seventies was abducted by aliens, spiffed up with all the latest mod-cons and dropped back onto the roads of the American midwest four decades later.  

A vintage 1975 Brave

With a nod to the original (above), it's available with a satisfying streak of crimson, yellow, olive green or woodstock brown on the outside, and the tasteful interior will remind you of the cheeriest parts of the 1970s. The iconic flying W is still there, and the front has the eyebrow look of the original.  In other words, this is modernization done right (if one can make such a claim about a luxury camper). 

Like a hotel cafe from 1982...

The Brave is built on a Ford F53 chassis, with a 362-hp 6.8L 3-valve Triton V10 SEFI engine and 5-speed automatic transmission to haul the 30-ish foot long frame. Inside, you'll find modern LED lighting, sleeping space for up to six (including a rather cool studio loft), flat screen TV, a fully equipped galley with 3-burner stove, 2-door refrigerator/freezer and microwave, a sophisticated climate control system, and a compact but serviceable bathroom. 

All in all, the modern Brave pays homage to the $4,000 original while offering luxurious accommodation that would have been unimaginable back in the early 1970s. It's not cheap, with prices starting at $96,424, but if you'd like to try life on the road this is definitely a great way to do it in style. 

2015 Winnebago Brave Motorhome

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